Nevada County’s 49er Fire proved a harbinger of fire seasons to come
September 10, 2018
Marty Nelson was just 19 when, as a California Youth Authority inmate at Washington Ridge, he was assigned to fight what became the 49er Fire.
A Sacramento native, he had been on the fire crew almost two years by then and had fought several fires. But nothing could have prepared him for that fire, he said.
In the last few years, California has seen some devastating mega-wildfires. But 30 years ago, when the 49er Fire swept through Nevada County, few in Northern California had ever seen that kind of wind-whipped mass destruction.
30 YEARS AGO TODAY
“It was pretty clear it was going to be a major fire.”
— Tony Clarabut, California Department of Forestry battalion chief at time of 49er Fire
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The 49er Fire started a little after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1988. By the time it was contained on Sept. 13, it had burned 33,700 acres — 52 square miles — and destroyed 312 structures, 89 vehicles and 17 boats.
The memories still loom large for many in Nevada County, especially for those who fought the fire.
"It was the biggest one I'd ever been on," Nelson said. "It was pretty scary."
What he remembers most clearly was the noise the fire made.
"That roar — it was like a locomotive and the ocean and the wind, all at the same time," Nelson said, the awe he felt still reverberating 30 years later. "It would come through like a rush, this heavy beat, like crashing waves."
Interactive timeline researched and created by Content Editor Samantha Sullivan
Nelson remained at Washington Ridge another eight months before his release, then moved out of state. When he returned to California a few years ago, he chose to make Nevada County his home.
"I go up there every now and then, to look around," Nelson said of the site of the fire's origin. "It was a big part of my life."
'REMINDED ME OF SOME WAR SCENE'
Even veteran firefighters were stunned by the speed and ferocity of the blaze.
"It reminded me of some war scene," said retired CDF Region Chief Bill Holmes, remembering his first view of Lake Wildwood from the air. "All I could see were houses burning and boats on fire floating around randomly. … Both lanes of the road leading to Lake Wildwood were full of trucks and cars full of belongings, pets and horses heading out to Highway 20. It was almost impossible to drive into Lake Wildwood."
The heat and the wind already were a concern that morning, said Tony Clarabut, a battalion chief with California Department of Forestry at the time. After all, he said, firefighters had to knock down a 35-acre fire the night before.
He was sitting with Capt. Gary Sweet, a longtime county resident and firefighter, when Sweet made a prediction.
"Gary said, 'Tony, we're going to get a fire today,' meaning a major fire," Clarabut said. "Not 10 minutes later, we were toned out for a fire off North Bloomfield, it was a tree into a power pole."
As soon as they got the quarter-acre fire under control, Clarabut said, they heard the Oregon Peak Lookout calling fire traffic in the North San Juan area.
"That was the beginning," he said.
Clarabut was the first chief officer on scene, arriving after a North San Juan engine and a CDF fire engine.
The fire was already at three acres, he said, adding, "It was pretty clear it was going to be a major fire."
Back then, a vacuum of fresh resources led to many of the firefighters working 48 hours or more before getting a rest.
"When you're in the thick of things, even a catnap is not happening," Clarabut said.
The new normal
"One interesting comparison … is that 30 years down the line, fire agencies do a lot of things better, there's more coordination of resources and more mutual support, and more resources, more personnel available," Clarabut mused, adding that a number of the fire stations back then weren't staffed with paid personnel.
Another change for the better?
During the 49er Fire, Clarabut said, the Lake Wildwood evacuation was a "disaster," with residents who were trying to flee the fire getting stuck in long lines.
"Pleasant Valley Road at the time was just two lanes, and it was a major problem," he said. "Now there's a third lane for evacuation purposes. There also is now a connector road between Alta Sierra and Lime Kiln."
One major issue in 1988? A lack of defensible space.
According to the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County, of the 148 homes destroyed during the 49er Fire, 80 percent were not in compliance with the required clearance around homes.
This is an issue that has not gone away, Clarabut said — and is one that gets ever more important as the county's population has continued to grow.
"We have always had a fire problem in California," he said. "The more people we put out in the wildlands, the more we allow fuels to build up, and with the (climate) changing. I don't think we should be surprised our fires are getting bigger and more damaging."
And, Clarabut said, the more homes get built in the wilderness, the more the responsibility for protecting homes becomes a greater and greater burden on the local fire agencies.
"In 30 years, people have moved further and further out. You can see it," he said. "When you have to focus on protecting property and evacuating people, fires continue unabated."
Clarabut also points to climate change and drier seasons, saying, "The fuel component out there is extraordinary — it gets worse every year."
In much of California, he said, residents aren't getting the message to be good stewards of their land and manage the fuels.
"Driving around Nevada County, to our credit, a lot of people are making a better effort to clear their land," Clarabut said.
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.